As the daylight runs out and autumn turns to winter, so the opportunities to race a long way are dwindling. When you have one last chance to run a long-distance PB this year – be it a half or even full marathon – then you want to get it right. You’ll often hear it said that racing a long way is as much a mental battle as physical, but at this time of year it can be harder than ever to maintain a positive mental picture. Getting up in the dark for your race – even reaching the race HQ before the sun comes up – isn’t the best start, and then you’ve got to conquer the wintry conditions. If you’re getting last-minute nerves about your race then try these tips in the last week to make sure you feel ready to run strong again.
Visualisation is a powerful tool when it’s used properly. It might sound like mumbo jumbo, but bear with us. You need to ‘see’ yourself running well and enjoying your race. In fact, you need to hear, smell and feel yourself doing it – really put yourself into the experience and give your mind every positive detail to work with. Close your eyes and picture yourself at different stages of your race: on the start line, at the 10-mile point, at mile 22 when the going gets really tough. Take time to focus on each point that you’ve chosen. Imagine smiling and waving at your family; imagine the crunch of autumn leaves under your feet as you run, or the smell of a frosty morning; imagine the refreshing feeling of rain on your face or the magical beauty of a misty course. Make every aspect of it positive while staying as realistic as possible. Throughout, think of yourself feeling relaxed and strong. Practise this every day in the lead-up to your race, and try to think of a simple mantra you can believe in to call up these feelings, like “I knew I could do this!” – or try an action like squeezing your thumb and forefinger together to call your vision to mind.
Sometimes we run races late in the calendar to banish the demons of bad experiences earlier in the year. This is a great idea, as long as you don’t carry your bad experiences with you into the new race, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feel a nagging sense of dread every time you think about your forthcoming race, and you think it’s down to bad memories from an earlier event, face up to your fears and write them down. Maybe you feel you haven’t done enough training. Maybe you unexpectedly ran out of energy half way round in your first race. Whatever the problem, you can find a solution if you do it ahead of time. Write down your worries and brainstorm simple solutions – even if it’s as simple as re-writing your expectations for this race if you really haven’t trained as much as you wanted to. Once you’ve been through this process, forget about your old race – it doesn’t matter any more.
Sometimes a bit of practical preparation is all it takes to feel psychologically ready to race, and at this time of year a lot of that comes down to being ready for the conditions. Running in the British autumn could be glorious sunshine and 18ºC, or it could mean 10 degrees colder with rain and a freezing headwind. You might even get both on the same day! Usually the thought of heading out into poor weather is worse than the reality so the trick is to wear a few layers to get yourself ready to go, which you can ditch later on, or have some versatile kit at the ready. A simple pair of gloves and lightweight shell jacket will make a world of difference at the start of a cold race, and you can always pass them to a supporter or fold up and stash in a bum-bag halfway round if you get too warm. Make sure you have your favourite cosy kit ready at the finish so you can warm up fast, and if you know facilities will be limited at HQ, go prepared with a Thermos of warm drink.
Music has an incredible mood-altering effect – for better or worse. You can harness this to your advantage for a race. If your race will allow you to wear earphones (always check with the organisers) then you can build your own playlist to keep you motivated and happy around the course – even timing it so you have your most cheerful tunes ready for when your energy is likely to ebb. Even if you’re not allowed to actually race with an MP3 player, you can learn to play songs in your head as you reach different parts of the course to help you round. This works best if you’re able to drive or cycle the route beforehand while listening to your music so you can link your favourite songs to key sections of the course.
It’s hard to make yourself happy when you haven’t decided what that would take, so be honest with yourself before the race about what your goals are – and whether they are realistic. If your last race was only a few weeks ago, for example, you might not be as well recovered as you think – in which case a PB is probably out of the question. A good way to avoid disappointment is to come up with a few different goals: one ‘dream time’ which you’d be absolutely over the moon with; one that you think would be a good enough reflection of the work you’ve put in; and one “that’ll do” goal in case you have a bad day (which could just be “get round the course in one piece and finish with a smile”).